Amiri Baraka, Activist and Poet, Dies at 79

This great American writer was founder of the Black Arts Movement.

Posted: 01/09/2014 05:13 PM EST

America lost one its greatest poets on Thursday with the death of Amiri Baraka. The writer, activist, cultural critic and icon was 79. Baraka had been suffering failing health for a while, a family spokesperson confirms.

Baraka was one of the most prominent and controversial African-American voices in the world of literature, with ties to the Black Panther movement and an icon of civil rights. Baraka, born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, played an active part in the poetry movement of the 1950s — before the death of Malcolm X drove him to change his name and politicize his work.

"We wrote art that was, number one, identifiably Afro-American according to our roots and our history and so forth. Secondly, we made art that was not contained in small venues," he said in a 2007 interview. "The third thing we wanted was art that would help with the liberation of Black people, and we didn’t think just writing a poem was sufficient. That poem had to have some kind of utilitarian use; it should help in liberating us. So that’s what we did. We consciously did that."

Baraka, who was New Jersey's poet laureate in 2002, until the position was eliminated, drew controversy for his 9/11 poem that year called "Somebody Blew Up America." The poem pointed out atrocities committed by people, mostly whites, around the world.

That same year, Baraka collaborated with The Roots on the song "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" on their 2002 album, Phrenology.

Baraka is survived by his wife, Amina Baraka, and eight children.

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(Photo: AP Photo/Julian C. Wilson, File)

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